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Why You Can Ignore Advice About Grief

People want to help, but nobody knows your grief like you do.

Key points

  • Everyone's grief is different.
  • Good intentions don't necessarily bring good advice.
  • Giving advice can be a subtle route to power.
Source: Laurenz Kleinheider/Unsplash

You know what you should do if you’re grieving?

I have absolutely no idea.

I can’t tell you what to do because your grief isn’t my grief and your loss isn’t my loss, and we are two different people with two different experiences of the world, two different relationships with our loved ones, and a million different needs.

“You are the expert of your own grief,” said David Kessler, who has counseled thousands of grievers. And yet how much advice have you received from people around you? Do they have suggestions for how you should cheer yourself up, how you should feel about your memories, how long you should grieve, what you should appreciate, and so on?

For some reason, I seem to inspire a lot of advice about pretty much everything. People especially like giving me advice about my complicated, anxious dog. Daisy and I have been working hard with professional trainers and behaviorists to make her life (and mine) easier, yet self-appointed expert amateurs are full of advice for me, whether or not they have ever actually met my pup. I try to ignore it but I've ended up taking down Facebook posts about Daisy to stop the deluge. It makes me cranky.

Advice about grieving is even more difficult to swallow. Never in a million years could I have imagined how complex and all-encompassing grief can be because losing my husband has proven a thousand times more difficult for me than the other losses in my life (a brother, parents, friends). There is no way someone who has not experienced the loss of a spouse can possibly come up with any useful suggestions for me, and even people who have, as I said earlier, can’t advise me on my very specific grief. It is mine and mine alone.

Advice can be both well-meaning and wrong-headed

For example, when I posted on my private Facebook page that I have no idea what I am supposed to do with my life now, it was a sort of existential wail, but a few people ebulliently encouraged me to do “Anything you want!”

Bless their hearts, I know they meant well, but if they had stopped for a moment and really thought about that... Realistically, what would they do if they could do anything!? “Anything” is an utterly overwhelming concept that requires not only deciding but, for me, then doing it alone after 35 years with a loving companion and helpmate. “Anything you want” is basically just rephrasing the problem and does nothing for the fear and confusion of this complicated transition.

I recently posted about how a particular annual event makes me sad because of memories of attending with Tom, expressing ambivalence about attending. Along with sympathy and compassion, a couple of people urged me to go. “Sweet memories,” one said.

Sweet, sure. But that doesn’t mean the sweet overrides the heartache. I did push through my reluctance and went, but started crying the moment I arrived, and turned around and went home. Oddly, I attended this same event last year without incident, but that’s grief for you. It has its own agenda. I don’t even always know what’s going to be right for me—how can anyone else?

Sharing, not advising

In his support groups, Kessler strongly discourages advice-giving. We all share what works for us in our discussions—we learn from each other and often hear things we hadn’t thought of—but it is up to us to pick and choose what we might want to try. For someone to recommend that I pray because it soothes them is wildly presumptuous, as is assuming I haven’t already thought of their suggestion and either tried or dismissed it. (I recall a stranger advising me to try yoga, which I have practiced for nearly 20 years.)

I won't pretend I've never given unsolicited advice. I know I have and blush to think of it. But I'm learning to check myself, even if it's just in recognizing the difference between "I do this" and "you should do this." And even that is walking a fine line. But I have at least come to understand that advice in grief is particularly inappropriate.

Reasons for and reactions to advice

People often give advice to grievers because they are uncomfortable with grief and want to hurry us along to where we seem “normal” again. I get that. But one article in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin suggests that giving advice is also “a subtle route to a sense of power.” So while someone giving advice about your grief genuinely wants to see you happy, their advice also suggests that they know better than you what is “normal” or “appropriate” in grief.

They don’t.

Other researchers looked at online forums discussing depression and found that posts broke down into three categories: problem messages (talking about the problem), advice messages, and thanks messages. And, the authors of the article in the journal Discourse Studies noted that while thanks messages were usually in response to advice messages, "...interestingly, thanks message writers never indicated that they had acted upon or would act upon the advice they received.”

I'd bet it's because those problem messages were not soliciting advice. In fact, when I do fret about my dog online, I will often conclude “No advice please,” and yet some people can’t seem to contain themselves, sometimes even starting their comments with, I know you said no advice...

Yeah, thanks.

Permission to ignore

So here’s my wrap-up, and don’t think of it as advice. Think of it as permission. Permission to ignore any advice that is not helpful. Permission to trust your own understanding of your own grief. Permission to feel however you feel for however long you feel it. Permission to keep his clothes in his closet until you don’t need to anymore, even if that’s forever. Permission to say “thanks” and then forget it and go on doing whatever you need to do.

You are the expert on your own grief.

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